When the Dust Settles

Beverley Thorpe | Evergreen News

Chemicals bring new and functional products into our lives. They allow food to stay fresh longer, carpets to be stain-resistant, cookware to be nonstick and raingear to repel water.

All this convenience comes with a hidden price.

A new study, “Sick of Dust: Chemicals in Common Products a Needless Health Threat in our Homes,” uncovers the dangers and health costs in our own households. Watchdog organization Clean Production Action, along with local partners such as Washington Toxics Coalition, analyzed dust samples in 70 homes across the country.

The results: Every single sample contained every single chemical class analyzed in the study, including phthalates, pesticides, alkylphenols, brominated flame retardants, organotins and perfluorinated chemicals.

These chemicals are linked to hormone disruption leading to reproductive and developmental problems. Plus, research links them to allergies, cancer and immune-system damage.

“As a mother of a four-month-old boy, I want to do all I can to ensure my child grows up healthy,” says Ivy Sager-Rosenthal, an environmental health advocate at Washington Toxics Coalition. “But I can’t vacuum my way out of this toxic mess.”

Lisa Brown is majority leader of the Washington State Senate. Her household dust was one of the 70 samples.

“Protecting babies and breast milk by phasing out toxic flame retardants is an urgent matter and one of my priorities,” says Brown. “I feel even more concerned now that I know these chemicals are contaminating our homes, and I am going to continue to fight for the bill [proposed to regulate flame retardants].”

Other local participants in the study with household dust samples included the Bullitt Foundation’s Denis Hayes, Swedish Medical Center breast surgeon Dr. Patricia Dawson, State Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36th District), St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral faith formation director Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Redding and Evergreen Monthly editor Bob Condor.

How did these chemicals end up contaminating common household dust? For those who live near a refinery or a chemical production facility, there is direct exposure from emissions. The government’s annual Toxic Release Inventory report confirms this.

For most others, exposure comes from the ingredients used to make common household products. This information is disturbing, not least because studies show we spend up to 90 percent of our time indoors, most of that at home. Children may take in five times as much dust as adults since they play and crawl on the floor, making them more vulnerable while their organs and immune systems are developing.

Brominated flame retardants, for example, commonly used on carpets, sofas and in electronic consumer goods, are toxic to developing nervous systems. They can disrupt the thyroid, which regulates growth and development in newborns. It has long been known that small decreases in thyroid hormone levels can impair learning abilities in children. Yet we now find these chemicals in dryer lint, on the inside film of windows, and, as the study shows, in common household dust.

The “Sick of Dust” report found toxic plasticizers used to make vinyl soft, stabilizers used in rigid PVC products, emulsifiers used in detergents and cosmetics, and stain-resistant chemicals used in Teflon pans and Gore-Tex. All the chemical classes tested for are internationally recognized as Chemicals for Priority Action, yet to date government regulators have passed no laws to phase out their use.

Forward-thinking companies and retailers have not waited for government action. They are restricting the list of chemicals their product suppliers can use and are actively seeking sustainable materials and design ideas for their products.

Clean Production Action sent a questionnaire to 35 leading companies and retailers to see if they have a chemicals policy or if they were even aware of the types of chemicals in their product lines. It found furniture manufacturers such as Herman Miller and IKEA had progressive policies to research and use safe chemicals, and carpet manufacturer Shaw Carpets is working closely with green chemists to design chemically safe and recyclable carpets.

Likewise, leading TV and computer brand names such as Dell and Samsung are aggressively researching safer chemicals and replacements for all brominated flame retardants and PVC uses. Aveda and Unilever are working to eliminate the use of any materials known to persist in the environment or damage the hormone system. Unfortunately, such chemicals policies are not standard practice in the retail trade, and most companies have no chemicals policy at all.

“This report is a wakeup call that we need action now to get toxic flame retardants and other dangerous chemicals out of our homes,” said Barry Lawson, M.D., president of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The legislature should move to phase out all forms of toxic flame retardants, and fund [the department of] Ecology’s PBT program to phase out other persistent toxic chemicals.”

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